Essays and Stories
by Seyed P. Razavi

© 2020

Learning to learn again

It was easy in the relaxed environment of a spa weekend get away to decide that I would begin a new phase of higher education. The excitement of exploring philosophy and classics, a passion I had from my teenage years onwards, didn't take much effort to build. I was soon on the Open University (OU) website looking at modules and plotting a degree programme. Filling in the necessary forms to enrol and even ordering the books I would first read was wish fulfilment consumerism. All available with a few clicks. Then there would be the waiting until the course started in October. Could I maintain my enthusiasm that long? Would my feverish dreams fall by the wayside? I couldn't help but recall, out of context, the parable of the Sower.

I became determined that I would not let this moment's drive simply fade, subsumed into a passing fad whereupon upon the first real challenge I would stumble and move on to something new. I know myself well enough to know that was a possibility. I also knew, that in the past I have gotten things done. Projects, goals and ambitions have been fulfilled in the face of difficulty and distraction. The key for me was to identify what divided the work I finished and that which I took on a whim and never completed. Sometimes the latter was just what I needed. A learning opportunity; fun, brief and discarded; its only value the experience. If that was to be the case this time, and it may yet prove to be so, it would not be for lack of foresight, planning and hard work. So what distinguished the finished life projects and the ones left in-progress forever?

The first thing I realised I needed to do was to keep the momentum and with it my enthusiasm. I could not simply wait until October to begin! Whatever the structure and barriers to getting started placed before me by the institutions of higher learning, time would not be my undoing.

The second key to my successful completion of past work was to plan, scope the work at hand, breaking it into units of work I could complete at a pace that would realistically fit into my already busy life. My tendency at times is to rush headlong, try to do it all at once, meet difficulty and once the initial energy expended, become disillusioned that anything would ever be finished. Big goals are scary. I needed lots of small goals to get me through this.

Finally, the lesson that years of building software has taught me is never try to build the final product in your first attempt. Prototyping is key. I am rusty in academic learning. Reading a lot of things on the internet has conditioned me to soak in information like a sponge. So much of it passes from screen through eyes to mind, that only with serendipity is anything retained at all. I read books in a more measured pace but still it passes in much the same way. Broad strokes of themes and character may lodge themselves as they run through my memories but little more except in the most exceptional of cases. It all forms a tapestry of thought I can draw upon but its not going to cut it for academic learning. For that I would need to retrain my mind, my entire process of evaluating information. So lets get that out of the way first. Lets learn to learn again.

Equipped with this self-knowledge I began by setting myself some objectives and obtaining some way to test myself along the way. To prove the model. I began by exploring the [OU's study skills site]( I watched some videos about organising my space and time. I watched videos about effective note taking. Trying various methods, I decided that whilst paper and pen had a tactile quality I enjoyed, realistically for me to fit the method to my day-to-day life I'd need to go electronic. I setup a Trello board to organise my study tasks. I got Evernote to write my notes. Why not apply the tools of the digital age? I may be studying classics but I don't need the conceit of papyrus to make me feel I'm playing the part. My handsome salt-and-peppered beard would do that just fine.

It wasn't long before my study board began filling up even though I hadn't even formally signed up for a university module! The great sea change of further education today is open courseware and given I was planning to study with the OU, what better place to draw my freelance study materials than their Open Learn courses. Abbreviated versions of what I intended to study plus additional modules on classics and philosophy. It was a feast and exploring the short articles, multimedia and activities would sustain my hunger. The Trello cards for books, articles, videos and short modules to read or view piled up into lists stretching from March to September. It was glorious.

A moment before it all got out of hand, I had a heart to heart with my wife Abby about the scope of my ambitions. I outlined the time I would devote to this new obsession and made sincere promises to devote time for her. And as much for my own sanity, agreed to some semblance of a social life by peeking my head out from behind the books and screens. An agreed plan was formed and events booked into the calendar: study days and hours clearly defined. I need a firm hand with my time sometimes as my natural propensity to manically focus on something or vegetate behind a game takes over. Lets not even mention time wasted chasing online cats across a dozen Reddit posts. Thankfully, Google had the tools to keep me in check.

So fast forward a little time and I have completed the second short module from Open Learn. I've got my approach to note taking down. My brain has flexed unused grey matter processing simple questions that deceptively open up big ideas. The stack of books I've ordered from Amazon doesn't intimidate me, it thrills me. I'm being disciplined about the passage through the material, often forcing myself to simply add the next article or book to the list or card for later consumption rather than getting too lost chasing down the rabbit hole. I've not quite managed to stop myself reading outside of my allotted times but I've at least tried to keep the overruns to respectable limits.

Will it last? Will I complete my quest and get the experience I was after? Will I become distracted or frustrated? I don't know. I write this so that I may at least remember this moment and perhaps it will motivate me when the goal seems out of sight.

Remember, future self, to savour this moment where I learned and there was nobody to give me any badge for the work I had done. It was worth it on its own.